Sometimes, when Albedo wakes in the morning and watches the sun rise over Mondstadt, he wonders what it’s like to be alive. That is not to say that he doesn’t understand the basic principles of life, but there is a fundamental difference between a heart that beats to live and a heart that beats for something else.
This is an indisputable truth about the world: without the sun, there would be no life. These two things are connected. It is the connection that lingers overlong in his thoughts as he drinks the coffee his body requires to function at peak performance. Those two things are connected, too. When he drinks coffee, his body works better. Little causes and effects, Point A to Point B, define everything about the world except for one, so far as he can tell.
He is undoubtedly alive, but there is a disconnect, a thread unwoven (or perhaps one that was simply never meant to exist in the first place). He takes care of the body assigned to him by his creator, and it allows his mind in turn to pursue his various desires, but these two things...they are not truly connected.
What is it like to be natural? He wonders if others feel the separation between body and mind as such a chasm as his, one which he cannot reach across no matter how far he extends himself. Albedo is Albedo, and Albedo’s body is his body, and never shall the two truly meet.
Life springs eternal from the bountiful earth, first gifted by the sun all those eons ago and now, harnessable by those with such abilities as his, by other means. All that is alive is capable of reproducing, but not all are able to do it in other ways. Through alchemy, a body may be shaped and assigned life, but it does not, he thinks, assign a soul.
Some things cannot be explained. They are intangible. Albedo believes that a mind is not a soul, and perhaps the soul is what he lacks in that great chasm between mind and body. It is this that stays his hand.
This does not bother Albedo. But he does wonder what it’s like.
The first time he hears about a mysterious outlander in Mondstadt, Albedo’s interest piques, but it is not the right time. There have been others so-named in Teyvat’s storied history; they are not overly rare, but few effect such changes wherever they go as this one. Aether, they call him.
It is his name that gives Albedo pause.
Aether (ēTHər): n. The material which fills the universe beyond the terrestrial sphere. An element which facilitates the movement of light, of gravity, and all things unseen. It possesses only natural, circular motion, no unnatural motion; there is very little aether in Teyvat, but elsewhere—the stars are made of aether. It is the heavenly element.
The first time Albedo meets Aether, he spends the rest of the evening wondering how very little he knows about anything. The universe always finds a way to make him feel small.
The stars are not made of Aether. Aether is made of stars.
Sucrose and Timaeus would not understand, so he says nothing. For all those Aether has encountered, none of them has spoken a word of him in a way that is true to what he is. Perhaps it is because they do not understand the implications, or perhaps it is simpler.
They do not lack connection. Their spaces in between are already filled.
Where there is a vacuum, there is a want to fill it. It is the natural order of things to pursue equilibrium: pressure, concentration, volume, temperature. This is the reason Albedo is drawn to Aether. He was a system at equilibrium before, one body to one mind, but with the introduction of this new variable, the system must accommodate. It must change.
This is Le Chetalier’s principle in action. It cannot be helped. It cannot be negotiated.
Albedo cannot be blamed.
Albedo half-turns towards the door as it opens, glasses perched on his nose and pen in hand. It has been an entire moon cycle since he came down from his camp in Dragonspine; his lab feels boring in comparison, but if all research was field research, then nothing would ever get done. The others haven’t mentioned much about the events on the mountain, though he does not know why.
He spent those weeks wondering whether or not Aether’s presence in Teyvat was a good thing. There is a reason that aether is not typically found on the terrestrial sphere—the universe must shift in accordance with natural law, and the world is shifting. When something does not belong, it still must be accounted for.
All that is bright and beautiful pokes its head around the door, and Albedo’s body unexpectedly malfunctions. The heart hammers, the breath shortens, the palms become clammy. He has experienced this once before when, sitting next to his campfire, a blond head dropped onto his shoulder in exhaustion. They were both very tired.
Golden eyes find him. “Albedo, hi—I’m not interrupting, I hope?” Aether glances behind himself where Albedo cannot see, then he smiles with visible hesitation. His companion is not here.
“Not at all. This is a pleasant surprise.” Albedo removes his glasses and rises from the chair as Aether steps in, closing the door. It should not make Albedo’s stomach turn over, but it does. “Have you encountered a problem with the sword?”
Aether leans back against the door as though he wishes to keep someone from coming through it, and it is so curious that Albedo wonders who is out there. Paimon, perhaps, or Sucrose. Kaeya. Albedo approaches and reaches around him, simply turning the lock. It won’t keep Paimon out, but the others usually respect a locked door.
“No, no.” Aether’s eyes follow his hand then lift again. “The sword’s working out alright. I hadn’t heard anything about a new expedition or...anything at all, really, so I wanted to come say hello. That’s all. All that work and I never got to see your lab.”
So, Albedo shows it to him. It is sizable enough for his purposes, suited for his role as an investigator while offering enough room for his personal research. There are shelves upon shelves of unlabeled ingredients and elixirs, concoctions, tools; Aether listens quietly as he did on the mountain, taking in information as readily as a sponge takes on water.
He would be a good apprentice, but there is no time to teach him as long as he pursues his sister. Alchemy is a lifelong pursuit besides, and there is something about the idea of containing this little sun that rubs Albedo the wrong way. No, a star is bounded only by gravity and the entropic pull at the edges of the universe. What could Albedo hope to achieve?
The unsettled feeling in his stomach dissipates the longer he speaks, twinging in unpredictable jolts now and then but, overall, quieting. Aether asks about current investigations, current experiments, past ones, and all the things Albedo has done since their time shared on Dragonspine. A hand brushes his elbow, the faintest touch, and there is that feeling again.
Albedo reminds himself to breathe. Aether laughs at something he says, and Albedo is so lightheaded that he takes the opportunity to sit down when he shows off his new sketches. Aether joins him, so close that their knees touch.
It is the most Albedo has been touched by another person in one day in all his unnatural life. Time means nothing in the anticipation and fulfillment of them, small as they are. This must be what it is like to be a twin, he thinks. Effortless touch, being accustomed to another person in such close proximity that it means nothing to take their arm or even lean into their shoulder when laughing—these are things Albedo cannot understand. Aether breathes them, sheds them like light.
It is a physical stimulus, a catalyst for something Albedo cannot define. So why does it imprint upon his mind just as strongly? Why is Aether here?
Aether catches his naked observation and turns pink. When Albedo can think of nothing else to talk about, silence stretches taut between them, and something feels unsaid. Again, he is plagued by the intangible, but this does not have a name or simple hypothesis readily apparent.
“I should go—Paimon’s probably eaten the entire pantry.” The clock on the wall shows that several hours have passed, and Albedo is reminded of just how meaningless time is. There is a pull low in his stomach, twisting and unusual, when Aether’s eyes meet his with some question unasked sparkling within.
Only when they are at the door does Aether abruptly turn, so close that Albedo stumbles back a step to prevent them crashing together. “Albedo—it’s Lantern Rite in Liyue. The festival.”
“It is.” He smiles, the idea of Aether releasing a lantern into the sky pulls at his chest. “Are you going to make a wish?”
When all the world wishes upon the stars, Albedo wonders what the stars wish for.
Aether shrugs noncommittally and rubs the back of his neck. “I might. I wondered if you’re going to go see it? The release of the Mingxiao Lantern, I mean.”
Albedo’s gut reaction is to tell him the truth: he has no intention of going to the festival, because wishes are for those who are meant to be here, those who are not made of chalk. But Aether is made of something different, too, and if the stars see fit to wish, then who is he to make a sweeping generalization? “I had not planned to.”
“Oh. Alright.” Aether turns away again, hand on the doorknob. “Thanks for the tour.”
He is gone before Albedo can begin to process what the hell just happened.
There are three basic needs that must be fulfilled for a human body to survive: food, water, and shelter. There are, similarly, three types of needs that must be fulfilled to motivate a human mind: achievement, affiliation, and power. Albedo possesses each of these sets of three in spades.
Yet the chasm between Albedo’s body and mind is evidence that there is something missing which strips away the strength of that fulfillment. He stares at the ceiling late into the night pondering this.
When his master sent him to Mondstadt with nothing but a referral letter and a well-wish, he had been given one directive: to discover the truth of this world. Such a thing is almost poetic in its impossibility, but still, he strives for it every day. The more he works, the more he does not understand; this serves to, on occasion, send him in a downward spiral.
I know nothing at all. Everyone has something to keep them humble. Like the stars, Albedo’s goal is out of reach. The ceiling offers no answers, and he begins to lose track of the question.
It did not bother him at first, Aether’s visit to his laboratory. On the mountain, Aether visited his campsite often, even staying with him overnight on occasion. Albedo did not often keep company besides Timaeus and Sucrose, and these visits were anomalies that stuck in his mind. He wrote them down at the time and analyzed them, but again, he came no closer to a conclusion.
Now, he lingers over his meager findings again with a new data point. He turns the new memory over and over in his mind.
Aether. Aether, Aether, Aether. Laughing and leaning, his eyes were full of something beyond Albedo’s limited understanding because it was, as far as he could tell, something otherworldly. It possessed the touch of divinity. Does this mean every touch Aether bestowed was divine in itself? He recalls fingers accidentally brushing his and a secret smile aimed in his direction. In the comparative warmth of Mondstadt as opposed to the frigid mountain camp, Aether carried the faintest scent of asters. If Albedo thinks about it enough, he can still smell it.
Lingering. Aether is lingering. His presence, his scent, the force of golden eyes…
Albedo’s body warms while his mind races through possible hypotheses. When his hand slides under the blankets to tend to a suddenly pressing bodily maintenance issue, he finds himself much more sensitive than usual.
Eating together. Aether’s blind trust as he charged into the field with Festering Desire in hand. The bob of his throat when he drank the elixir down. His head on Albedo’s shoulder as he slept. Their knees touching. Aether’s hand brushing his thigh. Aether turning at the door before leaving.
Aether’s hands fisting in his lab coat and hauling him in close to—
Albedo’s breath hitches as he soaks both his shirt and his top sheet, body twitching as it pleases. This particular conclusion catches him off-guard, too quick to catch, forcing him to change bedclothes before resting.
That particular data point wasn’t factual. How interesting was his body’s response to the idea. But Albedo does not pursue fantasies, particularly the strange and unexpected ones, and it had not been thoughts of Aether that pushed him over the edge.
Correlation is not causation.
There are, of course, some natural occurrences that cannot be applied to humans in full whether they are born to their bodies or placed there. One such example is magnetism. It is often true that opposite personalities attract one another, and those who are too alike repel for one reason or another. There is enough evidence of these to make a solid conclusion at first glance.
The purpose of peer review is to make sure all is verifiable. If it is not, then it’s back to basics, but every few centuries, there is an anomalous finding that rocks the foundations of science.
Perhaps this is over-dramatic, but Albedo can think of no better explanation to his predicament. Captain Alberich will not leave him alone, attracted to him while Albedo is viscerally repelled.
Magnetic theory is a lie.
“What are you up to?” Kaeya had not even knocked before barging in at mid-morning. Now, he leans against the edge of the desk, peering over detailed notes.
Albedo’s shoulders tense briefly before he glances up. “Working.” He very much wants for Kaeya to leave him alone; he always wants this, but he supposes it brings the Cavalry Captain some sick pleasure to be a nuisance. “How can I help you?”
Kaeya’s gaze lingers overlong on something on the desk, so Albedo looks, too. It is a sketch of Aether he made while trying to capture that strange look in his eyes from memory. He wanted to study it, to see what he could decipher. Albedo does not know why he feels compelled to cover it, but he does.
Kaeya’s lips purse in that way they do when he is containing himself. “It’s Lantern Rite in Liyue.” Word-for-word, he parrots Aether, and for a moment it picks Albedo right out of his body in confusion.
“So I’m told.” His voice sounds distant even to his own ears. “What does that have to do with me, Sir Kaeya? It seems I am a popular sounding board for such observations, but I cannot imagine why.”
Kaeya’s eyebrow lifts. “Oh? You, the artist, can’t see the value in attending something as visually spectacular as the Lantern Rite?”
This is a misunderstanding that Albedo runs into quite often with both the other Knights of Favonius and various citizens who take an interest in his art. More often than not, the most compelling subjects for his art are anything but extraordinary on first look. Inspiration strikes in unexpected places. He levels Kaeya with a frown and says nothing, wearing his disinterest.
Kaeya ignores the scowl. “I simply thought you would be going, that’s all. You were asked.”
Confusion sparks, and Albedo knits his brow as his frown grows deeper. “I wasn’t asked.”
“...Did he not ask you?” Kaeya appears genuinely stumped, standing straight on his own feet instead of leaning on the desk. “He seemed quite determined—nevermind then. Forget I asked.” He starts for the door again, and Albedo’s stomach plummets.
Aether’s eyes, hesitant and full of unasked questions, come to mind seemingly unbidden. “Wait—what? He was asking me? Why?”
Kaeya’s shoulders rise in a casual shrug (or, knowing him, one meant to look casual while being entirely pointed). “I assure you, I cannot begin to imagine why. Still, I did think you would agree to go. He is the hero of Mondstadt, after all, and it was my understanding that you found him interesting enough to make him a test subject?” He glances back at the desk, at the sketchbook Albedo covered in notes. When Albedo does not speak, he continues. “In any case, I wanted to tell you that the portable waypoint set up outside the city is completed. Lord Ragnvindr and I mean to attend later this evening, but as a professional courtesy, I thought to extend the offer—”
“What should I take?” Albedo’s pulse elevates as he stands, leaving his research for the moment. The words rush out of him all at once and he frowns at himself this time. He is usually able to better control himself, to not allow his body free license even with the disconnect. “...to the festival, I mean. I’ve never been.”
Kaeya’s smile is just visible when he glances over his shoulder. “A wish, I think.”
Albedo gestures impotently at him; Kaeya has to know that this is infuriating, because Kaeya is the only person who understands what he is better than others. They each bear their stars, and Kaeya knows well what that means.
He knows that Albedo is not a real person no matter how well he performs.
“But I don’t have any wishes.” Because how can he? Wishes are for those without set purpose, those who should be whole and find themselves lacking—or hoping—for something more. There is no more for Albedo than the pursuit of truth and the very laws of the universe.
He knows this. Kaeya knows this.
Kaeya turns enough to jut his chin towards the desk. “No?”
Albedo has been to Liyue Harbor before; he’s been just about everywhere, he supposes, but his enduring friendship with Xingqiu of the Feiyun Commerce Guild has brought him here time and time again. Sometimes, he is lucky enough to arrange for a portable waypoint; others, he must make the three-days’ journey on horseback. The ride is a beautiful one, but Albedo is in a rush that he cannot explain even to himself and he would be too late besides.
He expressed no gratitude to Captain Alberich when he left, but he is grateful for the convenience. It allows him the day to note down his restlessness and prepare for his next experiment, then he takes his time getting ready. Normally, he doesn’t bother with trivial things such as making himself look extra-presentable unless there is a formal occasion or he is expected to secure research funding.
Nevertheless, when he steps into Liyue Harbor, he barely makes it to the main thoroughfare before small hands clasp around his arm. “Albedo—what are you wearing?” Xingqiu’s eyebrows raise as he takes Albedo in, head to foot. “You’re awfully formal; have you come to do business? During Lantern Rite?”
“No, I’m looking for someone.” Albedo’s ears tinge pink; he can feel them burning. “...Is it inappropriate?”
Xingqiu’s eyebrows shoot right up. “Looking for someone? Who?”
Albedo does not consider himself to be a man prone to embarrassment, but sure enough, he feels himself turn red down to the collar of his (very) nice shirt. “I don’t know if you’ve met him—his name is Aether, he’s an Honorary Knight of—” He trails off at the light of recognition in Xingqiu’s eyes. He clears his throat. “...He asked if I was coming to the event, and I did not realize until today that it was an invitation. I thought I’d come for once.”
Xingqiu has been Albedo’s friend for several years. They’ve written a book together. They’ve spent enough time together that Xingqiu knows when something is on his mind—and when not to tease. Albedo is grateful for this. Albedo knows he is lucky for this, because Xingqiu can be a terrible gremlin when he pleases.
Some things just aren’t funny.
“Come with me,” Xingqiu says with an understanding smile and a tug. “Let me help.”
It is dusk when Xingqiu lets him go again, waving him towards the wharf. “Go, go. I’ll be attending later.”
Walking the streets in the direction of the festival grounds, Albedo feels a little out of place in the traditional garment Xingqiu arranged. He considers himself more understated on the whole, but his dear friend always has been more adept at these things than he is, so he’d given him free reign.
He wears his own shoes but nothing else is his, not even the hair ribbon. Even if he feels out of place, he does blend in with the crowd as they begin to gather for the climax of the festival. There’s so much food he can hardly stop himself from trying some of it, and he lingers to watch strangers enjoy themselves.
Again, there is the disconnect. He performs these actions, but they don’t mean anything. He reaches across the void and comes up with nothing but air, even if his heart warms when he watches two children trying a board game or when someone surprises a friend with a Xiao lantern. He is not allowed to feel that warmth because he is not one of them.
Everyone is together, celebrating, and Albedo feels like an outsider more than ever, even if he tries. Even if he wants to.
This, too, can be explained. It is the vis insitia, or the natural inclination to preserve one’s current state of being. Inertia. Humans do this as well as any other matter. Even homuncular bodies do this.
The night settles in, and Albedo watches the first Xiao lanterns as they rise from the docks. The sight of it stops him in his tracks.
He knows how it works. It is paper and bamboo and plaustrite, simple materials bound simply together then set to the wind. The theory checks out.
Knowledge did not prepare him for the magic of it, for the intangible quality that taunted him wherever he went. Here is evidence of what he cannot grasp, rising one by one into the night sky. There are data points which defy recording.
The unasked questions. The chasm. The shedding of light by a person as easily as a bird molts feathers. The space between atoms. The space between body and mind. The space between two people.
It hurts. He swallows hard around a lump in his throat and stands frozen. His body is uninjured but it hurts. He presses the side of his index finger to his mouth, tensing as he tries to fight down what he cannot define. But where stars are bounded only by gravity and the edges of the universe, Albedo is shackled. This body, this mind—and nothing else.
He gulps for air, suddenly claustrophobic even though he has drifted away from the crowd. This was a bad idea. He should turn and go back to his laboratory where everything has a mathematical formula and there are no—
A hand slips into his just as his eyes overflow for the first time since he was a child. Fingers squeeze his and stay tight, tangled. From the corner of his watery vision, he can just make out a glimmer of gold. He is forever grateful that Aether does not ask why.
“Did you decide on a wish?” Aether’s voice is gentle, so gentle. Albedo nods silently, the barest movement as he looks anywhere else. “Did you write it down?”
Albedo shakes his head, still not daring to speak.
“That’s alright. I don’t think you have to. That’s the point of a wish, isn’t it? To be something secret and sacred. What matters is that you make it.”
Albedo looks at him at last and starts to dry his eyes, but he doesn’t want to ruin Xingqiu’s lovely silk any more than he already has. Aether smiles a little and holds up a Xiao lantern in his right hand, ready to be released. All it needs is a push.
“Do you want to?”
Albedo sniffs hard, trying not to think about just how disgusting he must look. All that work for nothing. “Aether, I—”
Aether untangles their fingers and cups Albedo’s cheek, thumb swiping through tear tracks. He leans in, and Albedo’s eyes widen in the instant before Aether’s mouth lands on his.
Albedo has never been kissed before. The human body doesn’t need it, it doesn’t need to do this to fulfill its purpose. Nevertheless, something hot and painful surges through him and his heart aches, and when Aether breaks the brief contact, Albedo makes a sound in his throat he did not think himself capable of making. Their eyes meet and hold. Aether’s nose brushes against his, so tentative.
There they are, the unasked questions, no more than a few inches away. Only this time, Albedo finds the answer is simple. “Yes,” he whispers.
Aether smiles; though Albedo can’t see his mouth from so close, he sees it in his eyes. Aether lifts the lantern in his hand, fingers on the bottom of it, and Albedo wonders if the light is from the lantern or from the star that holds it. Swallowing hard, he places his hand on the bottom next to Aether’s, and together they push it into the sky over the harbor.
It rises to join all the others as Aether wraps him in both arms, unbelievably warm; Albedo is sure he’s oscillating, system unbalanced and striving, fighting to fit something that at once does not and absolutely does belong. When Aether smiles, Albedo’s heart kicks hard as if to tell him something important.
The sun is a star, too.
Albedo grabs Aether’s face in both hands and crushes their mouths together; the kiss is clumsy and raw with too much tongue and too much salt, but Aether presses into it regardless. Distantly, a great boom sounds over the water, but Albedo does not see the flash of light as the Mingxiao lantern bursts into life.
Life. An object created, given shape, and set to its purpose. Somewhere in between all that...
Albedo reaches, and it is the most natural thing in the world.
The other side wasn’t so far after all.